Cannes 2022

Corsage review – Vicky Krieps strikes gold as the restless Empress of Austria

The Phantom Thread star delivers a brilliantly mischievous turn in writer-director Marie Kreutzer’s subversive period drama

Vicky Krieps brings out the same unassuming, impish spirit she revealed in 2017’s Phantom Thread in Corsage, Marie Kreutzer’s devil-may-care imagining of the private life of Elisabeth of Austria, the eccentric, melancholic wife of Emperor Franz Joseph between 1854 and 1898. It signals itself as a bold and affirming act of myth-rewriting, gifting what feels like self-determination to a woman who has been poked and prodded throughout history as much as she was during her lifetime.

In a role that has already been incarnated onscreen by Grace Moore, Romy Schneider, Ava Gardner and (checks notes) Cara Delevingne, Vicky Krieps brings a mischievous levity to the Empress and her tightly corseted world. This is a royal who can smile sweetly at a formal function, as well as give the finger to a room full of stuffy aristocrats. Though her public life is humiliatingly micromanaged – she must remain frostily silent in the face of open barbs regarding her weight, as well as facing the daily degradation of waist measurements – she can’t conceal her rebellious spirit, especially now the attacks on her appearance seem more pointed after her fortieth birthday.

And yet there’s a believable conundrum at the centre of Corsage, in that Elisabeth simultaneously wants to hide away from the public while being seen for who she truly is by those around her. She commands to be gazed upon so that she can masturbate (“I love to look at you looking at me”). She jumps at the chance to be filmed by an early motion picture pioneer, upholding the idea of cinema as an erotic act. And she has sex, regularly and hungrily, finding autonomy in the act of giving yourself up to pleasure. As everyone around her dances around the subject of her ageing in a world where the only thing she must do is look beautiful, she craves real connection, to be rooted, to be loved for who she is.

Sumptuous production design and dusky, crepuscular cinematography gives Corsage an almost Baroque opulence. This visual darkness feels ill-suited to Krieps’ Pre-Raphaelite beauty, with her enviable clothing of mauve silks and lilac lace (even her sleek dogs’ collars are crafted of pearl and ivory). Within this heady atmosphere Kreutzer signals herself as a major talent, patiently allowing our protagonist to self-govern her destiny across several months, countries and suitors, effectively re-writing the “Sissi” myth of mushy Schneider films of yore. Anachronistic touches in design and soundtrack further signal that this is resolutely a modern interpretation, unbothered by historical expectation.

While the middle act feels a little baggy as Elisabeth’s digressions begin to slowly increase in number, by the time she’s reached a serene fugue that involves shooting heroin, hair-cutting and a worrying affinity for visiting the local insane asylum, we can almost sense her brain smoothing out all the tightly wound neuroses of courtly life. She will have cake, sex, drugs and decadent baths for as long as she pleases, thank you very much; the ending (a clever diversion from her real-life demise at the hands of an assassination) is, perversely, very satisfying.

Considering the tragic core of the narrative, Corsage is quietly miraculous in the way it appears to emancipate its subject. The film belongs to Krieps, whose vivacious performance never falls prey to period drama tropes – no trite iterations of a hysterical woman howling under a petticoat. With an insouciant jut of the chin and chicly smoked cigarette, she bats away tired labels that bog her down as a narcissistic footnote in Habsburg history. All hail the Empress.

Corsage was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2022. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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